Healthy Horse Pastures
Is your horse pasture healthy? I don’t mean is it beautiful and green–I mean is it healthy for your horse?!? You may or may not have ever thought about this question, but it’s something I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on lately.
I’ll be honest, until recently, I could have cared less whether my pasture was healthy or not. I saw grass as the enemy for the most part. I fretted about how much grass my horses were eating and whether it was sunny or cloudy (which affects the sugar content). I was especially worried come spring and fall–when horses are most at risk for grass-related laminitis (even though I’ve never had a horse develop this dreaded condition).
In order to restrict grazing, I’ve employed several methods over the years–from keeping my horses penned up for part of the day, building a ‘dry’ lot, using grazing muzzles, and even building a paddock paradise. All in the name of limiting grass intake.
I’m not saying that the above grass-restriction methods are bad or that they aren’t necessary in some cases. In fact, I’m sure they’ve saved many horses’ lives. But I began to question why was I so concerned about grass when my horses had lived on it for years with no problems?
I’d also like mention that I do still really like the paddock paradise concept–I think it could be great in many situations. It just wasn’t working for me. For one, my grass is stubborn. No matter how much I tilled it and tried to make it go away, it kept coming back. (I refuse to use chemical sprays.) And I realized that my horses would be better off on pasture than eating the short, stressed grass that was on the track.
Another reason why the paddock paradise didn’t work for me is that one of my oldest horse eats very little hay. Even though I did allow the herd into the center pasture for a few hours in the early mornings, hay was the main option on the track. Both Hershey (who’s always been on the thinner side anyways) and Kady (my grandma horse) began to lose weight after several months of being on the track.
So I moved all four of my horses to another pasture for the winter and decided to rethink things for the coming spring.
I realized that I had not been listening to my gut instincts on caring for my horses. My gut instincts were telling me a couple of things: 1.) Horses are meant to live on grass and 2.) My horses needed more say (and by say, I mean choices) as far their diet is concerned.
I started doing some research in order to learn more about healthy pastures.
I found that there are different opinions on what is considered healthy (many opinions involve fertilizing and spraying), but Joe Camp’s definition of a healthy horse pasture made the most sense to me. In one article, Joe says “the pasture the horse needs isn’t pretty.” (By the way, Joe even has a short but informative book on the topic: Horses Were Born to be on Grass, which I bought.)
So you may be thinking–no, no, no. My horses can’t live on grass–full time anyways. I’m not ignoring the fact that so many horses do have problems when living on pasture. It can and does happen. I believe there are several reasons for this, but unnatural living conditions, unhealthy pastures, and mineral imbalance are probably a major culprit in grass-related issues.
I also think springing change upon our horses is a recipe for trouble (for example, keeping them in a pen with only hay to eat and then suddenly turning them out on spring grass.)
To me, creating and maintaining healthy pasture makes more sense than depriving my horses of what they are meant to eat though. So here are my ideas on what a healthy horse pasture should include.
If you look at many horse pastures these days, they’re beautiful. Lush and green with little to no weeds and comprised of primarily one species of grass. I know people people that take great pride in how their pastures look. But beautiful grass does not equal healthy grass (for horses, anyways).
Variety is so important. Horses roaming free will pick and choose which grasses and plants to eat in order to meet their dietary needs. Horses in a pasture with one type of grass will eat that grass–because they have no other choice.
In addition, we often seed our pastures with modern grasses which are higher in simple sugars. We may fertilize and spray for weeds as well. All good and well if we’re going for aesthetics–but not so good if we’re going for a healthy horse.
A healthy pasture should consist of a variety of grasses, plants, shrubs, and trees–giving the horse many different options. What we often consider to be weeds can actually be very beneficial for our horses (as I wrote about recently). The lowly dandelion, for example, contains many minerals and vitamins and has medicinal value as well. Just something to consider before you spray. . .
Living herbs can be a wonderful addition to any horse pasture and this is something that I decided to add to my pasture this year (as I recently wrote about). Herbs can be great sources of minerals and vitamins and some also have great medicinal value. In domestication, we’ve taken away so many of the horse’s choices, but I believe that horses are intelligent enough to self-medicate, as so many other species do. By planting a variety of herbs in your pasture, you are giving them this opportunity.
One key factor in having a healthy pasture is having enough space to adequately support the number of horses you have. Not only do horses need space to move about, but they also need sufficient grass/ plant life to keep them healthy.
When I was a kid, we had a two-acre pasture with as many as four horses living on it at times. I realize now that this was just not enough land–for four horses living on it full-time anyways.
So how much land is enough? Well, the answer depends on a several things, including the type of soil and terrain you have. For many areas, 1-2 two acres per horse is enough, while in areas where grass is sparser, 5-10 acres per horse might be needed. I found this cool article with a link to a page which can help you find the type of soil your pasture has and also a good estimate of how many horses your pasture can handle.
Going back to the two-acre pasture we had when I was a kid–it was full of these weeds with little yellow flowers. These weren’t the ‘good’ weeds either. Why were they there? Overgrazing. Overgrazing will often result in poor quality soil which allows one or two species of weeds to take over.
Giving pasture grasses a chance to rest and recuperate is important– especially if you have a small acreage. You can do this in several ways such as using portable electric fencing (to fence off certain areas), pasture rotation, or dry lotting (with hay, of course) for a period. Recovery time for pastures takes anywhere from 10 to 60 days, depending on the season, weather, and soil.
I also wrote about this recently. I don’t know why it took me so long to realize the importance of manure management in the pasture, but I’m glad that I finally did. This is especially important if you have multiple horses on a smaller acreage. By cleaning manure daily (or every few days) from the pasture, you can help to reduce the spread of parasites, minimize flies, and promote a healthier environment (since manure often leaks into nearby streams and ponds, wreaking havoc on water quality as well as plant and animal life.)
So, there you have my ideas on what a healthy horse pasture should include. If you have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment below.
Sources and Further Reading